For eleven years John Howard, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, had dominated his country's politics. But he was thrown out in last week's election. It was a humiliating end to the career of this right-wing reactionary and stooge of George Bush who led Australia into a war against Iraq and resisted efforts to curb global warming.
It was a rout for the right-wing Liberal/National party coalition. For the first time Labor has won a clean sweep of federal and state governments in a landslide vote for the Labor Party and a crushing defeat for John Howard and the Liberal/National coalition.
After eleven years of constant pressure on the working class, finally the hated Howard government has been sent packing. To the delight of many workers and trade unionists John Howard lost his own seat of Bennelong to former TV journalist Maxine McKew.
Australians celebrated this event in the best tradition of the country and many were nursing hangovers as they woke up to a new government - the first Labor government for over a decade.
There was a swing to Labor of close to 6%, outdoing Howard's swing in 1996. The swing to Labor was even higher in the working class areas. This is the largest swing to Labor since 1975 and represents a comprehensive rejection of Howard, the Coalition and their policies.
Although issues such as the Iraq war and climate change were raised in the election campaign, it was fought mainly on domestic issues, with Labor capitalizing on voters' anger at workplace reforms and rising interest rates which have increased pressure on home owners even as the economy is booming.
During the campaign Rudd promised to improve hospitals and education ‑ turning schools into "digital" classrooms with a computer for every student ‑ and to scrap controversial Labor laws. But as the world economy worsens this will not be easy to carry out.
As The Observer (Sunday, November 25, 2007) noted:
"Rudd is expected to head a government that will be Labor-lite in style, distancing himself from the unions and the more radical members of the party. He has warned he will not be pressurised by demands from the more radical left or the unions. While his swing of more than five per cent is expected to guarantee him an easy run for a while, more radical Labor members might challenge him to be more progressive.
"Rudd has already marginalised some issues championed by Labor during its 11 years in opposition. He has indicated that he will continue Howard's tough line on border security, turning back boats carrying would-be asylum seekers before they enter Australian waters, and detaining refugees on Christmas Island while their cases are heard.
"He has rejected the idea of a referendum on the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation, and has said there are no plans to consider Australia becoming a republic. This stance may cause him problems in future, but for now Australia is witnessing a momentous shift on the political landscape."
The main issue that dominated the election campaign was the anti-trade union legislation introduced by Howard. Throughout the election the central question in the election was Howard's anti-union "Work Choices" legislation. Work Choices was introduced against massive opposition from workers and the unions.
The new scheme introduced the concept of individual contracts that no longer have to comply with the national award and site agreements, particularly brokered by unions, can now be banned. Also, compulsory secret ballots with complicated rules were introduced as a fetter to undermine union organising. Restrictions on site visits by union organisers were introduced. And on sites where individual contracts predominate, union organisers are no longer allowed without prior permission of the employer.
Another key change was that no longer would the concept of "unfair dismissal" be recognised for workers in workplaces of less than 100 employees. The bosses can hire and fire at will in the small workplaces now.
All this provoked two big worker mobilisations, one on 15th November 2005, the biggest workers' demonstrations in its history Australia. Around 500,000 people participated in the national mobilisation, with the largest rally in Melbourne, where approximately 200,000 Trades Unionists brought the city to a standstill. That was when the draconian anti-Labor laws were being pushed through parliament by the Howard government. A year later, at the end of November 2006, another day of action saw over 250,000 people mobilised onto the streets by the trade unions against the new Industrial Relations laws.
It was that movement that prepared the defeat of Howard. The mobilisations were enormous and showed the depth of feeling of the Australian working class. So powerful was the movement that the then Labor leader Kim Beazley was forced to announce that the ALP once in government would "rip up" the laws. "John Howard wants you working longer, harder and for less," he said. "The only way to get rid of these extreme laws is to throw John Howard out. This is the fight of our lives. On this issue, we all must stand together."
The opinion polls began showing a big swing to Labor, and now it has materialised. The workers have turned to Labor to put a halt to the bosses' offensive. It is a natural progression from the trade union struggles of a couple of years ago. The offensive by employers had pushed many workers out of collective agreements and into individual contracts. Workers in many industries lost penalty rates, overtime payments and holiday entitlements. Some even found themselves sacked and forced to sign new contracts on reduced terms and conditions if they wanted their jobs back. For many the election was the first chance to get payback.
Prior to the campaign the Coalition government spent millions on advertising to promote its policies. During the campaign tens of millions of dollars had been spent by the coalition parties and big business warning that the election would lead to a Labor government controlled by the unions. Labor was portrayed as "anti-business" and the clear message was driven home that a vote for Labor was a vote for the unions ‑ showing the real fears of the bosses.
This adds meaning to the Labor victory. Although the party leadership has the same outlook and philosophy of the Blairite leadership of the British Labour Party, the bosses transformed the election campaign into a class-polarised contest. The bosses were hammering home the idea that a vote for Labor meant an end to the anti-Trade Union legislation. They grossly miscalculated and it all backfired on the bosses as their propaganda clashed with the reality of workers' lives.
The economic backdrop to the election has been the continuing resources boom. Although the economic boom has been a windfall for the very rich it has not directly benefited the majority of working class workers. Over the last few years there has been a huge growth in profits. Myer, for example, reported profits up by almost 150% in 2007.
As elsewhere, however, this boom has been at the expense of the working class. It has been partially based on squeezing every last ounce of labor power out of the working class through speed-ups and cuts in the real wage.
Real wages have actually fallen as a result of Work Choices and rising housing and petrol costs have put many workers under financial pressure. For others, during the early part of the boom they were able to borrow against their homes which were suddenly worth a lot more than they'd paid for them. Of course, what is borrowed today must be repaid tomorrow with interest. Now that house prices have fallen and interest rates have increased borrowing is no longer a viable way of maintaining living standards. Many of those who'd borrowed in this way and been burnt by rising interest rates deserted Howard.
Work Choices dominated the election and will continue to dominate the political agenda for the immediate future, as workers will be expecting the new Labor government to scrap the hated anti-trade union legislation. The new legislation is not something the Australian bosses are going to give up without a fight.
Big business is opposed tooth and nail to any attempt to improve workers' rights and big employers such as Telstra are already racing to get as many workers signed up to AWAs (individual contracts that give up collective bargaining rights) before any changes in the law may come in. Some employers' groups are even advocating that businesses sack tens of thousands of workers as a stick to force widespread adoption of AWAs.
As The Australian explained in an article under the title "Bosses race to beat new Labor laws" (November 29, 2007):
"Small businesses are being urged to sack workers before Labor overhauls the industrial relations laws as one of the nation's biggest employers races to put 15,000 staff on five-year employment contracts before Work Choices is scrapped.
"Telstra yesterday outlined a post-election strategy to urgently sign up thousands of its staff already employed under Australian Workplace Agreements to new deals that do not guarantee pay rises.
"The AWAs being offered by the telecommunications giant could also be offered to new employees who join Telstra before the new laws are passed.
"The move comes as small businesses were being advised to seize the ‘window of opportunity to take advantage of Work Choices' before Labor's new laws are implemented."
Despite the ALP's promise to scrap Work Choices this is unlikely to happen quickly. Giving an indication of what kind of relationship we can expect between the incoming Labor government and the bosses, Julia Gillard the new deputy prime minister and industrial relations minister, has admitted that bosses would be free to sign up workers under the Work Choices legislation for many months to come, as it would take some time to pass any new legislation.
There is the added problem that in the Senate, Howard's outgoing administration still has control, and will continue to do so until at least July of next year. Through the Senate they can put up resistance to any change to the law. Almost unbelievably given the wall-to-wall election propaganda is the Coalition's claim that Labor has no mandate for workplace reform.
Australian Congress of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow reacted to this by explaining that, "Clearly some CEOs and many Liberal Party members still haven't heard the voters' message that they want the Howard government's extreme IR laws abandoned." And added, "We would urge the Telstra management to respect the rights of their staff, allow them to negotiate a collective agreement and rebuild a working relationship that is based on rights at work that Australians just overwhelmingly voted for."
However, the bosses' determination to stop any changes and the right wing's control of the Senate are not the only obstacles. It is already clear that incoming PM Kevin Rudd will not return to the old Award system that guaranteed terms and conditions for whole sectors of Australian industry. The Award system was originally an incentive to bring militant unions into line by offering them a carrot ‑ the Award ‑ that would set the minimum terms for a whole industry. The dismantling of the Award system happened because employers were demanding it and Howard as their loyal servant was only too willing to implement the new system.
An indication of where the new Prime Minister stands comes from within his own family. It is not that long ago that the scandal broke where Rudd's multi-millionaire wife Therese Rein was exposed for profiteering from the new system. This would indicate that Rudd may make changes, but they would be of a cosmetic, face-saving nature, rather than substantial change, as the workers clearly desire.
In fact he has promised that agreements signed before any new laws come in will be allowed to operate until 2012, i.e. throughout the whole term of this new Labor government. It is not surprising therefore that Rudd has described himself as an "economic conservative".
This explains the contradictory mood that also exists among many Australian workers, especially a layer of the trade union activists. On the one hand there is elation at the end of Howard in office. They believe they may get some respite from the Labor government. But if we look at the previous Labor government, the one that prepared Howard's victory in 1996, we can see that that will not be so. Labor in the 1990s behaved just like the Blair government. There will therefore most likely be a brief honeymoon period, during which some minor "progressive" changes may be put in place, but then we will see Rudd move once again onto the offensive against the working class.
Initially Howard had benefited from disillusion with the previous Labor government and the boom that has affected Australia for more than a decade. Eventually all that wore off and he was seen for what he really was, a direct agent of the bosses and an enemy of the Australian working class.
He could no longer hold back the militancy of the Australian working class. In that sense the coming in of a Labor government has two sides to it.
We have to start from the fact that the victory of the Labor Party in the Australian general election is a further striking proof of the law worked out by Ted Grant that the working class always tends to move through its traditional mass organizations. In the face of the bosses' attacks the workers turned to the only organisation that could defeat Howard and thus after more than a decade in opposition, Labor achieved one of the biggest swings in Australian history: close to 6 per cent, winning nearly 53 per cent of the vote.
On the other hand the Rudd leadership is not in tune with the needs of the working class. Rudd thinks like Blair. He accepts the "market economy" as the only possible system. That means he will be forced to accept the logic of the system. He will thus come under immense pressure from the bosses to continue with the same policies as Howard.
This is not what the Australian workers just voted for. Therefore what should genuine socialists do in Australia?
The sects in Australia - like their counterparts in Britain - wrote off the Labor Party. Now Labor has won a decisive victory over the Liberals, putting an end to John Howard's long and reactionary reign. They have no real explanation for this. They have been attempting to build their phantom "new workers' parties" and so-called alternatives such as the Socialist Alliance.
Some stood candidates against Labor such as the Socialist Alliance (whose main component is the DSP), the SP and even the Socialist Equality Party. What is even more incredible is that they called on their supporters to cast their second preference vote for the Greens, not Labor! They are so eaten up by their hatred of Labor that they completely misread the real mood of the Australian working class. They confuse the thinking of a thin layer of activists with that of the working class as a whole.
The massive landslide for Labor is a clear indication of the link between the party and the mass of the working class and yet the SP explained that, "In reality this election represented a victory of the representatives of one section of the ruling class over another." Genuine Marxists will rub their eyes in disbelief at such a statement, but it is logical for a grouping that considers Labor to be no longer a workers' party! One can imagine telling ordinary working class people in Australia that the landslide victory for Labor was merely the victory of one wing of the ruling class!
The situation is compounded by the miniscule vote of the SP. It stood a candidate in Melbourne in a seat where the Labor Party received over 36,000 first preference votes. The SP managed 433 votes, 0.6 per cent. The Socialist Alliance also did badly. It stood candidates in the Senate in five states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia), as well as in 17 House of Representatives seats. In all states bar Queensland they actually suffered a negative swing away from them! In most seats where they stood they got less than 1%, and in one or two they got a little above 1%. The overall vote of the Socialist Alliance was less than 9,000 votes, when in the past they had achieved two and three times that figure.
If it is true that Labor is no longer a "channel" for the working class to express itself and that Labor has become merely another bourgeois party how does one explain the vote? Not only did Labor score a historical victory, but those groups standing on the fringes of the labor movement suffered losses, not gains. It is another confirmation of what we have always maintained: when the masses move they move through the mass organisations. The vote in Australia is a clear indication of this.
Does that mean that Marxists have illusions in the likes of Rudd? Absolutely not! He admits to being an "economic conservative". That puts him in the same camp as Blair and Brown. He will behave in the same way. That means that over time he will dissipate the vote he has received. He will disappoint his working class supporters.
Labor leader Kevin Rudd is, like Tony Blair a devout Christian, and the comparison does not end there. He said he had reassured George Bush that the Australia-US military alliance would remain a centrepiece of the country's foreign policy. But it seems likely that he also discussed with Bush his intention to stage a gradual withdrawal of Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq.
In the early stages of his government he will be under pressure to come up with "radical" policies. That explains why after the election he told jubilant supporters he would "write a new page in our nation's history". He said Australia was "moving forward to plan, prepare and embrace the future". Rudd plans to ratify the Kyoto protocol and attend a key UN climate change conference in Bali next month. Howard had refused to sign up to the agreement on capping carbon emissions.
He declared: "I will be a Prime Minister for all Australians, a Prime Minister for indigenous Australians, Australians who have been born here and Australians who have come here from afar and who have contributed to that great diversity that is Australia."
He also said he would bring back the great Australian tradition of a "fair go" for everyone, and said he wanted to work with friends and allies all around the world, mentioning the United States, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and beyond. But one commentator said, "Rudd is like a glass and we're pouring our hopes and our ideas into him and, because he is empty, we see them reflected back." There is something in that.
However, although Rudd has promised to bring back Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq in a phased withdrawal, his foreign policy, which includes maintaining troops in Afghanistan, is not expected to change fundamentally.
Most of the national trade union leaders are not much better. Two years ago the conditions existed in Australia for a general strike. Had the trade union leaders mobilised seriously they could have stopped Howard in his tracks. Instead all they could do was say to their members "wait for a Labor government". We now have a Labor government. The workers will be expecting some serious change, but it will not be forthcoming.
The duty of Marxists is to tell the workers the truth. That means we do not build up illusions in the present Labor leadership. But equally we do not adopt a hidebound sectarian approach. We do not tell the workers fairy stories about building new phantom parties outside the labor movement. We have to combine opposition to Rudd's agenda with a perspective of struggle to change the Australian trade unions and the Labor party itself.
The defeat of Howard will be an enormous boost to the confidence of the Australian working class. It must have seemed to many that he would never go. But he has gone! Now they will wait to see what Labor will deliver.
All this is reminiscent of Tony Blair. In Britain Blair benefited from a prolonged economic boom, in the same way that Howard did. But that effect has worn off. Rudd comes into office not in the early stages of a boom, but at its tail end. Therefore he will not have a decade of boom ahead of him. The process will be somewhat truncated.
In all probability, Rudd will start with some reforms (including the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq) and then pass over to counter-reforms. Rudd will have to bend to the pressures of a ruling class going through economic crisis. This will mean he will come into conflict with the workers who have just voted him in.
Once they realise that nothing fundamental is going to change, they will be forced onto the industrial field. As in Britain now, we will see a growing radicalisation inside the trade unions and growing militancy. This will provoke opposition inside the Labor Party and trade unions, which have a tradition of militancy. On that basis it will be possible to organise a struggle to win back the trade unions to genuine class interests, and from the trade unions it will be possible to win back the Labor party to class struggle.
What is needed is to "patiently explain" to the advanced workers and youth what is needed. We should not separate these form the mass! They must be organised as an opposition within the trade unions and within the Labor party. This opposition would explain to the workers the perspectives that lie ahead. Many workers will want to give the new Labor government some time. They will not pay much attention to groups on the fringes of the movement.
The main emphasis must be on the fight to democratise the unions and reclaim Labor for the workers. In the final analysis the only guarantees of rights at work is an effective union organization and a party that stands on the ideas of genuine socialism. That however will not drop from a clear blue sky. It will come from a process over a long period of time. First the workers must attend Rudd's school of counter-reforms. then the process of differentiation will begin.
[NOTE: Much of the information in this article is based on discussions with comrades in Australia who support the ideas and perspectives of Marxist.com]
- Australia: Kevin Rudd doesn't get it but the capitalists do - the coming election will be fought on class lines By Simon Williams, 19 June 2007
- Massive mobilisation of workers all over Australia By Martyn Rogers in Sydney, 30 November 2006
- The whip of counter-revolution: Australian workers mobilise against Howard attacks By Hal Roberts, NTEU Murdoch Branch, Perth (Personal Capacity), 18 November 2005